Undergraduate News: 2010 through 2011

Friday, July 15, 2011

Submitted by Prof. Henry Greenside, Director of Undergraduate Studies

I would like to mention some highlights of achievements and events related to Duke's physics majors, to the graduating class of seniors, and to the physics major. Several physics majors won prestigious awards in the 2010-2011 academic time frame. Junior Vivek Bhattacharya, who is majoring in economics and physics, was named a Barry M. Goldwater Scholar in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering for his undergraduate research in physics and economics. The Goldwater award is a highly competitive award that about 300 college sophomores and juniors receive nationwide each year (see the website).  This scholarship provides up to $7,500 per academic year toward college expenses. As an aside, about once every 2-3 years, a Duke physics major wins a Goldwater, which means that the Physics Department continues to attract some of the strongest science majors on campus Junior physics major Farzan Beroz received an honorable mention by the Goldwater committee, which is an impressive acknowledgment of his academic and research achievements.

Senior Karthik Seetharam, who graduated as a double major in electrical engineering and physics, received an NSF Fellowship to study applied physics. He will begin graduate school this fall at Caltech and plans to combine a knowledge of theoretical physics with electrical engineering to improve the design and efficiency of photovoltaic devices for solar energy generation. Senior Siyuan Sun was awarded the Daphne Chang award of the Physics Department for the best honors thesis. (See the website). Siyuan was unusual in beginning research as a freshmen and continuing with his research through his senior year. In collaboration with his advisor, Prof. Ashutosh Kotwal, he did impressive original work in the area of experimental high energy physics, in which he developed and applied statistical tools to analyze data from the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider. The data analysis placed new constraints on the existence of a particle (a Z' boson), that will affect grand unification theories that predict the existence of the Z' boson. Siyuan will attend Harvard's physics graduate program this fall and plans to continue to do particle physics research. Physics senior Michael Bern was nominated to Phi Beta Kappa for his earning a nearly 4.0 grade point average. Michael plans to spend a gap year doing biophysics-related research at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the Triangle Park and then apply to MD/PhD programs the following year. Ten new students, a mix of juniors and seniors, were nominated by the Physics faculty for membership in the national Physics honors society Sigma Pi Sigma. (See the website.) These students were Michael Bern, Farzan Beroz, Alexander Beutel, Alejandro Cortese, Kevin Driscoll, Andrew Ferrante, Ashley Jones, Tanya Mitropoulos, Eugene Park, and Karthik Seetheram. These students were nominated for some combination of academic excellence in physics courses, excellence in physics research, involvement with physics outreach, and involvement with physics activities on the Duke Campus such as leadership in Duke's chapter of the Society of Physics Students. Duke's Physics Department has one of the oldest Sigma Pi Sigma chapters, dating back to the 1920s, shortly after Sigma Pi Sigma first came into existence. This May, the graduating seniors included nine first physics majors, four second majors (students getting a BS or BA physics degree in addition to some other primary degree), and two students who were interdepartmental majors that took a substantial number of physics courses and who were involved with physics research. These numbers remain low compared to the number of physics majors at schools of comparable size and of similar academic excellence and the Physics Department has spent several years now exploring ways to increase the number of majors. (In the long term, we would like to double the number of primary majors to about twenty graduating per year.) One change that was approved by the Physics faculty this spring was to increase the flexibility of the BS physics degree. In the past, numerous physics majors have commented on how the physics major had too many core requirements and this made it difficult to take electives that allowed one to explore various frontiers of physics, or to take a semester abroad because one would miss one or more of the core courses. The requirements for the Physics BS degree replaced two core courses (the second semester of quantum mechanics, Physics 212, and a second semester of experimental projects) with electives, which will be helpful. The Physics Department also slightly strengthened the math requirements for the BS degree by requiring majors to take a somewhat more formal course in linear algebra and a somewhat more advanced course in ordinary differential equations. Another change that was proposed about a year ago by the previous DUS, Prof. Seog Oh, and approved by the Physics faculty was the creation of a new major in Biophysics that lies within the Physics Department. This new major has attracted a total of eight majors so far (about four per academic year) and so already has succeeded in increasing the number of students who pass through our physics courses and who get involved with physics research. As expected, most of the biophysics majors are premeds who have a strong interest in or enjoyment of physics, but a few biophysics majors are interested in biophysics directly. The Department's first biophysics majors will graduate a year from now, in spring of 2012. If any alumni of Duke's Physics Department, has some suggestions or experience in increasing the number of physics majors, the Physics faculty would be interested to get your input. You can send an email to the Physics DUS via the address dus at phy dot duke dot edu.